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Review: "Lucy" shows Scarlett Johansson is not just another pretty face

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Luc Besson's "Lucy"

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Scarlett Johansson sometimes is dismissed by moviegoers as another pretty face, especially after her appearance in “The Avengers.” Late last year, though, Johansson demonstrated her acting range in the critically-acclaimed “Her” without even showing her face.

“Her” imagined a world where computer operating systems developed personalities, becoming companions—and more—to their users. “Lucy,” Johansson’s latest outing, can be considered the flip side of that technological coin.

The actress plays the title role, a young woman studying overseas who gets involved with the wrong guy. Forced to act as a “drug mule” for an international cartel, Lucy carries a packet of synthetic hormones in her abdomen. Unfortunately, the package leaks, which triggers dramatic changes in her brain.

Writer/director Luc Besson typically creates powerful roles for women. From Natalie Portman’s role in 1994’s “The Professional” to Michelle Pfeiffer’s hilarious turn in 2013’s “The Family,” Besson respects and writes for female actors. The results often are startling.

That’s especially true in “Lucy,” where Scarlett Johansson undergoes an amazing transformation. Though Besson uses special effects to show Lucy’s growing abilities, Johansson’s talent truly illustrates the changes.

Lucy uses less than 10 percent of her brain at first, but as slides on the screen show, her capacity increases over time. Johansson shows Lucy’s naïveté before the drugs leak into her system, but her facial expressions and attitude change as she attains each mental level.

Morgan Freeman provides solid support as Professor Norman, a scientist who has been charting the brain for decades. Lucy seeks him out for consultation, even though she already absorbed decades of his research in seconds via computer. Though she is brilliant, she needs a human scholar who is grounded.

Amr Waked gives Lucy necessary protection as French police captain Pierre Del Rio. After seeing her abilities in action, Pierre becomes a bodyguard and friend as she continues her transformation. In one telling scene, as Lucy feels her humanity slipping away, she kisses Pierre as “a reminder” of what she is losing.

But this is Scarlett Johansson’s show from start to finish. In “Her,” Johansson gave childlike qualities to her voice as her operating system character came online. Lucy possesses those same qualities before the drug enters her bloodstream, but this time audiences can see the changes in her face.

One of Johansson’s best works to date, “Lucy” is not the typical adventure film. With Scarlett Johansson in the title role, this is an intriguing twist to the action/adventure genre and a triumph for the actress.

“Lucy,” rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality, currently is playing in theaters.

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